Guardian Australia launched its weekly political podcast this week, which is hosted by the online paper’s Deputy Political Editor Katharine Murphy.
Katharine invited me along to talk with her and Political Editor Lenore Taylor about the role social media is playing in the federal election, amongst other things. It was a most lively and enjoyable discussion.
Click here if you’d like to listen to the podcast (and be sure to subscribe for future editions).
Last week’s extraordinary attack on finance minister and senate leader Penny Wong by Liberal senator Michaelia Cash raises a number of questions that all women should consider in light of Julia Gillard’s removal from high office.
Cash’s tirade was ostensibly part of the Senate’s debate on 457 visas, but she took the opportunity to vociferously denounce Wong as part of an apparently hypocritical and bloodthirsty “sisterhood” who, in voting to return Kevin Rudd as Labor leader, had stabbed one of their own in the back:
The sisterhood stabbing one of their own in the back. You’ve always got to like that, don’t you? When the sisterhood stab one of their own in the back … I wonder how loud former prime minister Gillard screamed when her own sisterhood knifed her in the back and took her out – minister Wong is now sitting reaping the spoils of the victory, drinking from the chalice of blood …
Putting aside the astonishingly vitriolic abuse levelled at Wong – a woman who has unassumingly notched up so many firsts (first climate change minister, first female Senate leader, first openly gay minister, first Asian born federal minister) – it’s nevertheless fair to question whether it’s more important for female ministers to resign in protest, or stay on to further progress the interests of women and all other Australians. I saw Wong’s decision similar to that of Tony Burke: loyalty to the party and the nation outweighed that to Gillard. It was a tough choice, and I wouldn’t have liked to be in her position.
Cash’s outburst, however, raises another far more troubling question: why do female Coalition MPs descend to such levels of spiteful abuse?
No one was surprised when departing independent Tony Windsorappeared on Insiders yesterday and labelled Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella the “nastiest” member of parliament. Admittedly, this may have had as much to do with an independent running against Mirabella this election as the Liberal MP’s reputation for confrontation in parliament. Nevertheless, the shadow industry minister has a long rap sheet, including having suggested that late-blooming progressive and former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s stance on the war on terror left him open to caricature as a “frothing-at-the-mouth leftie”, ridiculing Gillard for her childlessness, and telling a fellow Coalition member to “pop your Alzheimer’s pills”.
More troubling than Mirabella’s behaviour is that she is not the exception. In what appeared to be a deliberate Coalition strategy since opposition leader Tony Abbott was tarred with a misogynist brush, and one which is based on the deeply flawed logic that a parliamentary attack on a woman by a woman is somehow more acceptable than one by a man, deputy liberal leader Julie Bishop has regularly been wheeled out to attack Gillard (you will also remember her cat claw gesture). And now Cash has joined the ranks of the Coalition’s female attack force.
Sadly, neither of the major parties is innocent when it comes to strategically deploying aggressive female parliamentarians for maximum impact. Labor’s “handbag hit squad” (dubbed so by another of the Coalition’s own attack force, Kelly O’Dwyer) were ruthless in wielding their gender to emphasise Abbott’s misogyny.
But Coalition women have now taken nastiness to a new low. And it really does have to stop. When high-octave abuse and the parliamentary equivalent of girl-on-girl jelly wrestling becomes the accepted way of making a political point, what hope does the average Australian ever have of again respecting our democratic institutions?
Greens leader Christine Milne entered the federal election campaign last week in the party’s latest attempt at relevancy.
In her first interview with Guardian Australia, Milne made several demands of the putative prime minister-elect, Tony Abbott, to secure the Greens’ cooperation with a new Coalition government. Pledging that her party’s role will be to “keep the bastards honest” and insisting that Abbott would need to produce acceptable spending initiatives, Milne resembled the Black Knight more than a serious alternative to the leaders of the “old parties”.
Like the feisty medieval soldier, Milne doesn’t seem to realise her party’s melee is over. The Greens will not play a major role in the September federal election, nor will they be significant force afterwards.
Only 17% of voters think the performance of the Greens in federal parliament has been good, while the party’s primary vote has dropped from a peak of 11.8% at the 2010 election to around 9% now. Unless Adam Bandt can secure a preference deal with one of the major parties, the Greens poster boy in the house of representatives will be a one-term wonder.
The party’s Senate vote is also estimated to have dropped, from 13.1% at the election to around 11% now, putting most of the Green Senate candidates – and the prospect of retaining the balance of power – at risk of being wiped out by closed shop preference deals between the major parties.
But like the Black Knight, the Greens aren’t giving up that easily. They’ve tried hard to insert themselves into this contest in an effort to stem the loss of votes.
The minor party wasted no time taking credit for the carbon price decision that history will judge as prime minister Gillard’s greatest misstep. They played hardball on asylum seekers to stake out the high moral ground. And after years of harassing farmers for their animal husbandry and environmental management practices, the Greens sought to join forceswith the very same primary producers to “help” them resist the developers of rural coal seam gas deposits. Not one of these endeavours has delivered votes (as measured by the published opinion polls).
Even Milne’s dramatic public announcement that she was calling off the formal arrangement between the Greens and Labor struck at the formation of minority government in 2010 – the political equivalent of being told “you’re dropped” – did nothing to gain new supporters. Since that election, half the votes lost by Labor have gone to the Coalition, while the rest have drifted to independents, others and don’t knows. None have shifted to the Greens.
Milne’s latest ploy will have equally little traction. Her claim that Abbott is not fit for leadership because of his stance on climate change is based on a mistaken assumption that voters planning to vote for Abbott care that he is, for all intents and purposes, a climate change skeptic. It ignores the fact that Abbott was elected Liberal leader over Malcolm Turnbull expressly to overturn the pro-emissions trading position Turnbull had imposed on the Liberal party. No one currently thinking of voting for the Coalition will change their vote to the Greens, or to Labor for that matter, because of Abbott’s climate change position. For him it’s a vote winner, not a vote loser.
No matter how much Milne and the other Greens parliamentarians claim otherwise, this election will simply not be about them or the independents: it will predominantly be a battle of the giants. The election will be distinguished by voters returning to the major parties after what they consider to be a brief but torrid flirtation with the Greens and the current batch of independents.
While minority governments have been the norm at the state level for some time, voters are unfamiliar and unhappy with them at the national level. This disenchantment is manifest: only 28% believe the current minority government arrangement with the Greens and independents holding the balance of power has been good for Australia. And as we have seen in the published polls, only a third of that number are prepared to elect the Greens to a similar position this time around.
This year, the federal election is simply about Labor and the Coalition: the voters have already determined this by rejecting the non-major parties and the concept of minority government.
No matter how loudly the Greens demand to be taken seriously in the campaign, their reality is that their time is over. They can yell and posture as much as they wish, claiming they’re not finished yet, but they won’t be noticed or heard over the grunts and roars of the grappling giants.
For political analysts and pundits alike, Tony Abbott is the Impossible Opposition Leader. Never before have we seen an alternative prime minister run such a relentlessly negative campaign for so long.
Big on three-word slogans but small on policy detail, Abbott has single-mindedly focused on running Labor into the ground since he beat silvertail Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in December 2009. With this slender mandate, Abbott lurched the Liberal party to the right of the middle ground, being uncomfortably straddled by Labor as it tried to appease not only its labour antecedents, but also an idealistically progressive rump.
Since then, certainty and competency have been the names of Abbott’s game. At a time when voters are unsure who the Labor leader will be tomorrow morning, or which promise they will break next, Abbott offers them a beacon of dark light with simple pledges of negativity that do little more than emphasise the government’s key failings.
The “stop the boats” rhetoric not only dog-whistles the community’s xenophobes and bigots, but signals that Labor can’t protect the nation’s borders. “Scrap the carbon tax” comforts not only those who think climate change is crap, but reminds how Julia Gillard broke a promise to form a devilish pact with the Greens to secure A minority government. Perhaps most transparent is Abbott’s new pledge, “no surprises and no excuses”, which paints the government as chaotic and irresponsible.
The consequences of Abbott’s “campaign of no” are all too clear. Political discourse in Australia has descended into megaphone territory, with partisans using any and all platforms to besmirch, ridicule and aggressively denounce those who don’t agree with their party’s line. Skirmishes and biffs constantly break out on social media and talkback radio, while confected conflict masquerades as news on tabloid television and in the print media. We are all the poorer for it.
Meantime, Abbott has also paid a price. Not since the Liberal’s twice-risen soufflé, Andrew Peacock, has a leader of the opposition had such a high disapproval rating while simultaneously delivering a strong primary vote for their party. Granted, with a disapproval rating higher than Abbott’s worst (67% compared with 63%), Peacock still took the Coalition to within a bee’s ding of victory at the 1990 federal election, securing 20,000 more votes but nine seats less than Labor. We’re much further out from the election than Peacock was when he scored that career-high disapproval rating just two weeks before polling day, but it’s instructive to note the Coalition enticed back 4.5% of voters in those last few days.
Support for the Coalition is much stronger today, but there are still enough soft voters currently “parked” with the opposition to change the election outcome if they decided their disillusionment with Gillard was insufficient justification to vote for Abbott.
Abbott and his strategists know this, and are determined to avoid the Pox On Both Your Houses effect that delivered the balance of power to a motley collection of Greens and Independents at the 2010 federal election.
Recognising this, Abbott has thrown the switch to Statesman. The daily Question Times rants have disappeared, or been relegated to shadow ministers. The look is more polished, the language more considered, and the message has evolved from one-dimensional chants about stopping the boats and scrapping the tax to incorporate a positive element with pledges of hope, reward and opportunity.
It’s too early to tell whether a navy suit (which is meant to engender trust) and a less hectoring tone will be enough to convince us that Abbott is prime minister material.
The transformation is at least entrancing the federal parliamentary press gallery. In a celebration of “savviness” that would make Jay Rosen’s head spin, the gallery’s breathless reports of Abbott’s budget reply focussed less on the substance of his budgetary measures than the audacity of him outlining them at all. We’re yet to see whether the transformation to Statesman Tony™ has even registered with the voting public, let alone whether they buy it.
Strategically deploying new suits, blue ties and slogans, Abbott is making this federal election about certainty and competency. Some days, the government seems to be doing everything it can to help him.
The last time an opposition leader took such firm control of the election agenda, it was Kevin07. Rudd masterfully shaped the entire election campaign by pledging to be just like John Howard, but with bonus features like the ratification of Kyoto and scrapping of WorkChoices.